Over the past two weeks, much has been written about whether America’s fledgling Space Force should use naval ranks to organize its structure and hierarchy, or stick to the traditional rank titles of its parent service. , the United States Air Force. The matter is subject to a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives (technically Subtitle C of Title IX of the forthcoming annual National Defense Authorization Act). This so-called “Starfleet Amendment” would require the Space Force to use naval ranks. There are principled and reasoned arguments on both sides, and even William Shatner, who for over 40 years played the most famous and accomplished starship captain in the fictional Star Trek universe, weighed in – unsurprisingly in favor of incorporating a more maritime grading structure.
Those who argue in favor of keeping the ranks of the Air Force—I’ll call them traditionalists for simplicity—generally believe that military operations of space defense and control (and increasingly space domination listen)) have their roots primarily in Air Force culture. Thus, to help protect the clear overlap between air and space missions, maintaining the same reporting structure makes the most sense to help facilitate close cooperation between the Air Force and space force. There’s also apparently some concern that leaning too close to sci-fi tropes could undermine Space Force’s legitimacy, just as it takes off from the proverbial terrain.
On the other side of the argument are those – let’s call them the optimists – who are more interested in “leaning” into the distinction between Space Force and Air Force missions and, for that matter , Culture. By arguing on behalf of naval ranks, these optimists hope it will help separate the Air Force and Space Force in much the same way as the Marine Corps (which uses a land rank structure that ostensibly has the advantage to facilitate operations with its counterparts in the army) and the navy, are distinct. More concretely, optimists also seem more inclined to take a long-term view, inasmuch as they recognize that outer space, as a domain, has more in common with the sea than with the air, and therefore envision a future that will arguably not include manned ships to undertake sea power type missions, where naval ranks would make more sense than land ranks.
In a sense, traditionalists and optimists treat the ranks debate as one of the first salvoes in the discussion of what Space Force will become. And if we want to be specific, this discussion also involves Space Command, because it can be assumed that Space Force will not conduct operations, but will staff, train and equip combatant commanders in the same way as the military , navy, air. Force, Marines, and a little less properly, the Coast Guard. (The Coast Guard offers an interesting alternative to the presumed organizational relationship between Space Force and Space Command and in fact, the Starfleet Amendment envisions operational responsibilities for Space Force beyond the traditional post-Goldwater-Nichols personnel. , Train, and Equip” mission of other services.)
Leaving aside for now the relationship between Space Force and Space Command, what underpins the whole discussion about which reporting structure to use is the concern, on both sides, that this decision will help shape the culture, and in some respects, the likely functional prioritization of the service for years to come. This is of course the most important question, much more so than how we intend to designate an E-5 or an O-3 in the Space Force.
As a starting point for a solution, it may make sense to simply separate the functional areas by making a broad distinction between “looking down” and “looking out”. The “looking down” mission space could include most of what the Air Force had done in space for over 50 years – much of it exploiting the domain to support ground defense operations, whether it is early warning, missiles, easy access to navigation and precision timing information, communications, reconnaissance, imagery, or signal data/intelligence gathering. This would also necessarily include the ability to defend against threats to those capabilities.
Alternatively, “looking out” would capture the near future of space operations, likely beginning with the inevitable increase in cislunar traffic between Earth and the Moon, some of which will be manned. As future space operations – both civilian and military – expand outward, there will of course be a foreseeable need to project military power within the scope and pressing language of the Treaty on outer space.
Additionally, applying this “looking down” versus “looking out” analytical paradigm can also help answer the question we started with regarding which ranking structure to use, to which I would suggest: why not the two of them ? Space Force members trained to execute “look down” missions could use a land rank structure, as this pairs well with their Air Force counterparts, both in terms of mission execution and of cultural heritage. And those who will eventually be trained to conduct “surveillance” missions can use the naval ranks, recognizing that space domain “surveillance” functionality is only one aspect of the larger potential of outer space. . Both would be members of the Space Force, but their honorifics and titles would change depending on their mission responsibilities, which could be visually represented using easily distinguishable uniform patches or devices in addition to insignia or stripes. traditional military. Indeed, developing uniforms that employ That is collar badge Where stripes on the sleeves/epaulettes may actually be an easy way to accomplish this distinction as the same uniform would simply use different rank indicators – collar devices for Space Force members to look like down” and stripes on the sleeves / shoulder pads for “look”. type out Space Force members.
Optimally, the Space Force would allow for flexible transitions between “look down” and “look out” service, depending on service needs, qualifications, and available tickets, and outgoing members eligible for both could choose their terminal title in a manner similar to how Baseball Hall of Fame selectees choose the hat they would like to wear upon their induction.
Ultimately, while the discussion of what kind of reporting structure Space Force should use is interesting and arguably important in helping to shape the trajectory of Space Force’s cultural identity, more pressing questions remain, including how Space Force plans to collaborate with U.S. allies and other related departments and agencies, the development of the express statutory and legal authority necessary to operate across the spectrum of foreseeable space defense operations, a discussion more insight into the interplay between commercial space and military space operations, realistic budget requirements that will help insulate Space Force from the specter of future deprioritization within the Department of Defense, clarity of the role that Space Force Space will play into planetary defense and, of course, further doctrine development. Thinking about organizing Space Force using a “looking down” and “looking out” analytical paradigm can also help to better frame these questions for deeper analysis.
The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Coast Guard, the United States Department of Defense, or the United States Government.